Monti: Italy risked not paying salaries

AP News
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Posted: Dec 06, 2011 4:32 PM
Monti: Italy risked not paying salaries

Premier Mario Monti urged lawmakers Tuesday to accept his financial rescue package, including new and higher taxes, saying Italy had risked running out of money to pay state salaries and pensions.

Lawmakers on the right and left have been grumbling over his 2-day-old rescue plan, including pension reforms to make Italians work far longer and a revived home property tax.

Monti's rescue plan, approved by his Cabinet on Sunday aims to pull Italy back from the brink of default on its staggering sovereign debt, a scenario that could doom the eurozone and worsen economic crises across the globe.

"Parliament is sovereign, time is short, the room to maneuver is very little," Monti said on a state TV talk show when asked about political leaders' insistence in Italy that the austerity plan be softened.

He said it is "premature" to decide if his 3-week-old government would resort to a confidence vote in a bid to get his rescue recipe approved by Parliament quickly and intact.

With no political base in Parliament _ Monti and his ministers are all technocrats asked to save Italy's finances _ the government would topple if it loses a confidence vote, a prospect that could trigger catastrophe in global markets.

Monti, an economist and former EU commissioner, announced emergency measures on Sunday that seek to save euro30 billion through austerity measures and reinvest euro10 billion of savings from those measures to enhance growth, which has been stuck at zero for a decade.

Much of the austerity strategy hinges on new or higher taxes, such as the higher excise tax on gasoline and diesel fuel, which already took effect Tuesday. News reports said it would mean it would cost consumers an extra euro5 or euro6 (nearly $7-8) every time they fill up their car.

Monti called the hike in fuel taxes "indispensable" and needed to help keep local public transport functioning.

"We didn't have to look far. Greece represented what could have happened to Italy," Monti said, evoking the drastic situation of its fellow eurozone member across the Adriatic.

"We lived well, consuming the wealth produced by past generations instead of producing more," he said. Under existing pension system reforms over the last decade or so, many Italians could retire at as much as 80 percent of pay in their mid-50s. With Italians enjoying exceptional longevity, the pension payments are becoming nearly unsustainable.

Italy's public debt is amounting to a staggering euro1.9 trillion, or 120 percent of its GDP.

Asked if Italy had risked being unable to pay its public servants, Monti replied, grimly: "It was certainly possible" that salaries as well as pensions ran that risk.

On Tuesday, the government approved the release of euro4.8 billion ($6.4 billion) from state coffers to fund strategic infrastructure projects aimed at stimulating economic growth. The funds will pay for highway projects, high-speed railways and retractable underwater barriers to help protect Venice from flooding.

Economists have mixed views on how effective infrastructure programs are for spurring economic growth, with most favoring privately funded projects for better stimulus. Still, longer-term projects such as railways usually require state funding because the investment period is too long for many investors.

Sunday's Cabinet emergency decree allows the funds to be released immediately, but Parliament must still convert the measures into law.

The new funding includes euro2 billion to upgrade the Treviglio-Brescia and Milan-Genoa railway lines, both in the north, to high-speed, euro598 million for highways, and euro600 million for the Venetian lagoon mobile barriers, a project already more than two years behind schedule due to financial problems and designed to protect Venice from periodic high tides. The projects are expected to stimulate growth by putting unemployed people to work and to keep construction contracts flowing.

Unicredit economic analyst Chiara Corsa said the measures appear "sufficiently bold" to allow Italy to balance its budget by 2013," even with recession looming.

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Barry contributed from Milan.